Undercover: Down in Jungleland (02/12/76)

Between football games a few Sundays ago, I chanced upon a commercial that really, as they say, took me back. Opening shot: Harvard Yard, looking wintry and impressive. Students are hurrying to class (well, not hurrying—striding), but one of them, it seems, wants to talk with us. He is about 25, very well dressed, serious but friendly. He’s done some thinking; he’s made some choices. And he wants us to make a choice.

He wants us to join the Peace Corps.

Now, I am normally credulous, but not that credulous. I know this ad was there only to score public service points with the FCC: just something they had lying around in the tiles they dug out to fill a hole. I know there’s no such thing as the Peace Corps anymore. That was all a long time ago.

Long enough, though, for a wonderful novel to come out of it: Raymond Sokolov‘s Native Intelligence (Harper & Row, 228 pp., $7.95)—one of those unusual books that captures a time with nerve and precision, with neither condescension nor nostalgia.
native intelligence
Native Intelligence (which begins with quotes from Ish­mael, Queequeg and Wittgen­stein, and which was, according to the author, written while the Senate Watergate Committee was on its lunch breaks) is the story of one Alan Casper. He is a genius, Harvard ’63, able to speak more languages than anyone else can name; his story is assembled by a friend (“Really, I never liked him,” he writes) from Alan’s diary, correspondence and attendant documents. The book is first of all very funny; Sokolov has endowed his hero with a gift for self-deprecatory deadpan humor exceeded only by his talent for linguistics. I don’t believe Alan’s literary executor/narrator didn’t like him; Alan Casper is impossible to dislike.

Alan takes his Peace Corps training and soon reaches Qa­tab, the least civilized country in Latin America. He has joined the Peace Corps for no real reason, but for reasons too good to disclose here, he is sent deep into the interior to work with an almost unknown Stone Age tribe called the Xixi—which is fine with Alan, because they speak a language no one else has ever learned. His assignment: teach the natives “how to lead productive lives” (which means instruction in not dumping shit in their wells) and, just incidentally, check out the uranium deposits the Xixi happen to live on.

Alan is interested in the joke he has played on himself—because of a meaningless decision he wakes up in another world—and he is determined to come up with the punch line, regardless of what he has to do to find it. Quickly, he learns Xixi. Alan attempts to combine his native intelligence with that of his tribe, and he succeeds. The book is among other things about a mind working; almost every page conveys Alan’s delight in the novelty he is discovering both in a new world and in his mind itself. Soon defeated in his ingenious efforts to teach the Xixi anything, he decides to join them, at least for the duration. “The days are calm,” he writes, “and I learn to be a frog.”

Frog is his clan within the tribe; Alan observes all customs as he learns them. He is good at this and, finally, he faces initiation. “If my civilized half is worth holding onto, it will survive a Xixi initiation. If not, the hell with it.”

And so a certain suspense builds up. Alan is taking chances, getting a feel for what he has to lose. What would it mean for the smartest kid in America to trade his intelligence for that of a wholly different kind? Could he? Would he lose his sense of humor along with his past? Alan is interested in this too.

He passes the initiation and, certified, marries an Xixi girl, half certain it will be fair to leave her for his girl back in Boston (the Xixi practice poly­andry anyway; his new wife will get another husband whether he leaves or not). And so he begins to live, almost fully now, as an Xixi. He still gets the joke, but not the punch line, and there are the beginnings of panic at his growing inability to think in English, or to think abstractly. So he teaches his wife to speak English and to read and write, and then he takes sick and dies.

I give away the ending because it is implicit in the book; at any rate it is not the punch line. In the epilogue, nine years later, the narrator arrives at the site of the Xixi village (long since destroyed by the uranium miners Alan tried to warn his tribe against), seeking the details of Alan’s story. And there, he sees a native woman, with a little boy, who looks so much like Alan…

Jesus, I thought, how corny. What a miserable ending to such an inventive, convincing book—a book more fun than any I’d read in ages, so full of ideas and yet saved from strain at every turn by its humor. But then came the punch line. It nearly broke my heart, and as I read it again I grinned at it. And that I won’t give away.

If you want to read Native Intelligence you will likely have to order it; it was published last spring, almost but not quite sold out its first printing, so it will have disappeared from most bookstores. What is worse—what is imbecilic—it will not, as of now, be coming out in paper. Which means we will have to go through the hoary Nathanael West rite—waiting for the book to go out of print, to become a word-of-mouth classic and to be rediscovered and reprinted years from now when half the people who would enjoy it most are dead. Which is ridiculous. This is the sort of book one forces on friends, wild-eyed.


The Auctioneer by Joan Sam­son (Simon & Schuster, 239 pp., $7.95). Poor simple folk in New England farm country are subject to malevolent go­ings-on, Not their fault. Good triumphs. Publishers want you to compare this to Shirley Jack­son’s “The Lottery,” which you may, if you’ve never read it. Nice use of the “And it began to snow” ending, though.

Rolling Stone, February 12, 1976

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